Discover Spain’s Balearic islands and find out which one is best for you.
The archipelago, consisting of 151 islands, about 100 miles off the coast of Spain is mostly known as The Place to Party in the Mediterranean for young Europeans. But outside of the main resorts there’s plenty to do for everyone else too.
Best known by us Brits as a great place to lie in the sun all day and then party till dawn, the Balearic Islands have so much more to offer. The temperate Mediterranean climate means they’re rarely too hot or too cold and when you step away from the mega-resorts you’ll find beautiful landscapes to explore and great cuisine to keep you satisfied.
The origin of the name Balearic Islands is unclear but the best theory is that it means ‘people skilled at throwing rocks’ – a handy way of warding off undesirables when you live on a small rocky island! Nowadays, visitors are welcomed with open arms with typical Catalan hospitality.
Talking of Catalan, one thing you’ll notice if you’ve picked up a little Spanish along the way is that The Balearic Islands’ main language is Catalan. For most people, this isn’t a problem – they speak Catalan, Spanish and, in the resorts, most major European languages – but it can cause confusion when, say, you’re looking for Ibiza Town and the signs are pointing to ‘Eivissa’.
The cuisine in the Balearics is also notably Catalan-influenced. Rich vegetable stews like Tombet – similar to ratatouille – are complemented with roasted lamb or pig and delicious breads. As you might expect from an island, seafood is the order of the day and you’ll find Caldereta (lobster stew), salted cod, garlic prawns and baked fish such as grouper on most menus.
You’ll also find tapas bars in the Balearic Islands and this is a great way to sample small bites of the local produce. Sobrassada is a chorizo-like sausage that’s soft and spreadable due to the climate. Maó cheese (Maó is the Catalan name for Mahón – the capital of Menorca) is also a delight, coming in an aged variety which is similar to Italian hard cheeses or a young, softer variety with a creamier taste and texture.
In terms of alcohol, the islands are known for some decent red wines, made in the Binissalem and Plà i Llevant areas and also a type of gin made from wine spirit rather than grain spirit leading to an interesting taste. This is usually mixed with lemonade or bitter lemon to produce a drink called Pomada.
Which Balearic island should I visit?
Of the 151 islands that make up the archipelago known as the Balearic Islands, only 4 are really inhabited – Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera – with Cabrera a declared Maritime-Terrestrial National Park, with a staff but no permanent population.
Formentera is the smallest – less than a quarter of the size of the Isle of Wight – and has very little to talk about. Often in the past it’s served as a hippie retreat due to its unspoilt nature and the fact that most beaches allow nudity. Joni Mitchell wrote an album on the island and Bob Dylan once lived in the lighthouse.
With a name literally meaning ‘the larger one’, it’s no surprise that Mallorca, or Majorca, is the largest of the Balearic Islands and home to the islands’ only real city, Palma. Mallorca receives about two thirds of the Balearic Islands’ 13 million annual visitors. The island is most famous, or perhaps infamous, for the mega-resort of Magaluf where the majority of young British tourists go for the vast quantities of cheap alcohol.
But Mallorca is about much more than teenage excesses. The Serra de Tramuntana is a gorgeous mountain range that’s worth exploring either on foot or by bike. Elsewhere there’s a full range of sights to see and sports to play for people who want more than a few hangovers to remember their holiday by.
‘The smaller one’, Menorca is a much more sedate place for holidaying. Home to a large number of megalithic stone monuments as well as a stunning array of wild flowers and birds, Menorca offers something vastly different from the resorts of Mallorca. The island is also home to most of the wine and gin production as well as the home of Maó cheese.
The smallest of the three main islands, Ibiza is known throughout the world for its club scene, centred around Ibiza Town (Eivissa) in the South and Sant Antoni in the West of the Island. Instrumental in the development of electronic dance music, the clubs are open past dawn and allow hedonistic partying in the presence of some of the world’s foremost DJs.
Away from the clubs, large parts of the island are UNESCO World Heritage areas and offer some stunning scenery for sightseers and people who prefer their holiday a little less…dancey!
Travel between the islands
Thanks to frequent ferry services, you don’t need to restrict yourself to one island. The two main operators, Balearia and Trasmediterranea operate mainly between the three main islands whereas there are more operators offering the short hop between Ibiza and Formentera.
If you do fancy island hopping, Mallorca is the best place to base yourself as, for example, if you want to go from Ibiza to Menorca then you’ll have to go via Mallorca anyway. You’re best to book in advance during the summer as crossings can be busy.
The three main islands all have airports and flights between them and again Mallorca is the hub so flying from Ibiza to Menorca may involve a change in Palma, especially outside of the main summer season.